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Table of Contents

First: Three things you need to do to write well

Articles about critiquing

Articles on the craft of writing

Articles on the process of becoming an author

Articles on mechanics, software, and other specifics

Articles about me

Attitude

Very few of you will actually need this drummed into your heads. That said, I’m a guest (can’t read, can’t comment) in a group where submissions editors share the horrible come-backs that authors send them after they reject submissions. I’d share some with you, but that’s against the rules. Reading those come-backs has taught me a lot about what not to say or do in a professional publishing context.

No matter how great you think you are–and you can be a multiple award-winning author who’s rolling in money, fame, and glory–no one actually likes an arrogant asshole. Likewise, no one likes a person who is difficult to work with. I have been both arrogant and difficult to work with, and I’ve worked with both sets of people, and I know what I’m talking about.

First: writing is not a competition. There’s no race for you to get your work to publication before someone else does. You absolutely do not need to worry about theft or plagiarism unless your novel is 100% ready to go and someone literally steals the file or print and mails it to a slush pile before you can do so. And even then, you have so much proof that you wrote it that you can beat that thief in court.

There are dozens of paranormal romances out there featuring alpha werewolves. There are dozens featuring sexy vampires. Mysteries with private investigator characters are a dime a dozen. Whatever idea you have, it’s probably not unique or original, which means no one can steal it. You may have a new take on an old idea, but you probably don’t even have that.

What you have is your unique way of telling a story that’s probably hundreds of years old by now.

People love that shit. I grew up reading the original fairy tales. I mean, I was five years old, sitting there working my way through the Cinderella version where the stepsisters cut off their own toes and birds pluck out their eyes as they’re literally marching Cinderella to the marriage altar. Those stories are a part of my DNA and probably why I can’t resist writing dark stuff. Readers love tropes and will actively seek out their favorite tropes, or retellings of already-existing stories and themes, so you really, really don’t have to worry about someone stealing your idea and publishing it. Just write the damn story.

Writers who zealously guard their work, require NDAs (which aren’t appropriate for anything except Harry Potter Book 7-level stuff), and who screech about theft of idea are obnoxious and insecure, and the rest of the reading/writing community stands back and laughs up their sleeves over such people. Don’t be one of them.

Second, do not drag other authors down. Lift them up.

You know who looks ugly when they trash an author? The person doing the trashing. Yes, I even mean people who trash Stephenie Meyer and E L James. Both Meyer and James are rich, rich, rich, and they both have devoted fan bases. Don’t you wish you could have that? The people who trash them try to cover it by saying they disapprove of elements of Meyer’s and James’s works, but the fact of the matter is that they’re trashing the authors, not the themes and plots and characters of the books. “Meyer is a hack” is about Meyer, not about her writing.

I once read the first 10% of the first Twilight book because I wanted to know what the fuss was about. I didn’t see why people loved it, but I also didn’t see why people hated it. I didn’t finish it, didn’t read the rest, didn’t watch the movies, and have no opinion about the quality of the books. I know almost nothing about Meyer herself. Same with James. I didn’t read the 50 Shades books. The point is, I’m not a fan. I gain nothing by defending them except my own self-respect.

It’s totally fair to take exception to some idea, theme, element, character portrayal, etc. in a book. I have read books where African Americans were portrayed in racist ways, and I sure as hell took exception to that and said so loudly. It’s totally fair to publicly discuss the things you don’t like about a book. It’s also fair to say that the purchase of a new book that promotes stereotypes is a tacit support of those stereotypes, which is why I refuse to buy any of Orson Scott Card’s books from anywhere other than used bookstores, and I didn’t see the movie even though I like Ender’s Game. The man hates gay people, and I don’t care to support that opinion with my money. But I don’t trash Card as a writer. I criticize his oppressive belief, and I could never be friends with him, but those are not the same thing.

Dragging other authors down will not make it more likely for you to publish. It won’t make your readership bigger. It won’t net you more money. It will make you look like an asshole, and it will keep you from ever being read by that author’s fans. It may also make you a laughingstock on social media.

Likewise, never, ever publicly trash a reviewer, whether pro or amateur. In general, be as civil as possible. Everything negative you say can and will come back to haunt you and may result in the end of your career. People listen, and they make up their minds about whether you’re worth the trouble, and that could be the difference between the publication of your manuscript and its rejection.

If you receive a rejection slip, do not write to the publishing company and insult them. Your prose isn’t as awesome, deathless, high-brow, important, amazing, incredible, or life-changing as you think it is. The people who read it aren’t ignorant hacks. If they don’t understand your message, you didn’t do a good job of writing it. And if you show yourself to be the poster child for the Dunning-Kruger Effect, don’t expect to ever publish. Publishing companies have lists that they put people on. “This person didn’t handle rejection well, behaved in an unprofessional way, and personally insulted staff members X, Y, and Z” is not a note you want appended to that publishing house’s file on you. Not to mention, they do, on occasion, talk to each other. If you want publishing houses to enter into a bidding war for your work, you better handle rejection as politely as possible first.

Third, your prose is not deathless.

In fact, it’s probably not as good as you think it is. That’s okay. Total crap does get published, and the worst writer I ever read has a fan base. You can be quite publishable and have a good career with middling prose. Many do.

When a critique partner suggests you change something about your book to make it work better, give the request some serious consideration. If your reaction to receiving critiques is to shove your fingers in your ears and start chanting nonsense syllables, you’re behaving in an arrogant (and childish) fashion.

“But I’m an artist!” you might say, or some variation thereof. Great. There’s a reason they’re called “starving artists.” If you want to be “true to your art,” don’t complain if you never earn any money and remain unknown. Many people are happy to be true to their art and forego royalties. There’s nothing wrong with that. And I’m not saying change your work to please everybody, because you can’t please everybody.

That said, if you intend to be commercially successful, you do want to make sure that 80% of your crit partners/beta readers are satisfied. If you have five critique partners and three of them say that you need to clarify your main character’s motivations, then do so. Besides, as you grow in skill you won’t have the conflict of being true to your vision and producing something commercially acceptable. (If you’re writing for a hobby, do whatever you want–but again, don’t be an asshole about it.)

I write a lot about Latino characters. One of my characters was named Brayan. I wrote over 200,000 words using that spelling. Some of my crit partners had no idea how to pronounce the name, which happens to be the phonetic spelling of “Brian” for Spanish-speaking people. While “Brayan” is more authentic, I changed the name (and not without a serious struggle) to “Bryan” because my readership is mostly going to be native English speakers, most of whom won’t speak Spanish. I don’t want my readers to experience the name of this significant character as a road block, because if they do so, they won’t be able to fully immerse themselves in the story. So I changed the spelling of his name.

Mercedes Lackey and James Mallory wrote an epic fantasy called Blade of Empire. I  enjoyed it immensely. Most of the characters are elves, and in their world elves have extremely long and complicated names. The male main character’s name is Runacarendalur Caerthalien. This is an epic fantasy, with two of three books published, so you can imagine how many characters have names like that. An enormous number of readers who reviewed the books (especially the first one) commented on how off-putting the names were. Now Lackey and Mallory are experienced, many-times-published authors who have devoted fanbases who would probably read their books if every character used their social security number as their name. But you and I, we are not them. We don’t get that willingness to jump the hurdle of difficult names, etc.

Consider changing whatever it is that’s causing your readership / critique partners trouble. Be flexible. Listen. Learn. Consider. Approach your writing relationships with humility, kindness, and respect. Give honest feedback, but don’t be cruel. Don’t say horrible things about people in person or on the Internet even if you think you’re totally justified. Don’t ever publish anything negative about anyone while you’re upset. Life, writing, and the whole process actually goes easier if you think of yourself as one of many writers, if you’re willing to take advice, and if you make the attempt to be easy to work with.

How to find critique partners

If you’ve read my other articles you know that I think that critiquing the works of others is perhaps the single-most important thing you can do to improve your writing. And, of course, you’re going to want other people to critique your work. But how do you find them? How do you approach them? How do you ascertain that you’re at roughly the same skill level?

It’s very important to find crit partners at approximately the same skill level. You might benefit from critiques given by people of vastly better skill level than you, but they’re not going to benefit from your critiques and their writing will appear to be so polished that you won’t learn much from critiquing their work. This is why published, big-name authors don’t critique works from novices or newly-published writers. But before you can compare skill levels, you have to find them in the first place. When you do find your crit team, try to be in the middle of the group in terms of skill level.

When I started out, I had a friend who had indie-published a few books. I wrote my alpha draft and then, on the advice of my tax preparer, started a Facebook social media presence under this name (which I visit maybe once a year, so don’t bother) and friended her. She introduced me to all her writer friends. Someone I didn’t know was looking for critiques, so I offered to critique her work. At this point I was arrogant and ignorant, and my new critique partner wasn’t too good at grammar, so I put my foot in my mouth up to the knee and told her that maybe she should go enroll in a grammar class at her local community college.

Don’t do this. Trust me. If I could go back in time and metaphorically gag myself, I would. She was very angry and never spoke to me again, and that’s how I lost my first crit partner.

I posted that I wanted crit partners and didn’t know how to find them, so someone recommended I try Scribophile. I recommend you try it too. I signed up that day and bought myself a membership. Memberships are $65/yr. Around Christmas many people gift them to folks who don’t have memberships, so if you’re desperate you can do that. You can join for free, but there are limits to how many works you can have on the site and how many messages you can have in your site-based DM inbox, and you don’t get to use italics. The site is owned and operated by one man, Alex Cabal, and he’s friendly and extremely responsive to DMs. Thousands of writers, including published pros, plus agents and small publishers, use Scribophile, and that means he has to pay for a lot of server space and bandwidth, which is why it costs that much. If you sign up for Scribophile, don’t complain about the cost. Not a single veteran member will support your plaint, and you’ll look bad. Scribophile is ad-free and sign-in only, which preserves your copyright. It’s also limited to people 18 and older, which means you can post erotica, horror, and other material that probably shouldn’t be read by kids.

Scribophile can be a bit confusing for new writers. It was for me. But once you master the learning curve, it becomes very easy. I would not be a decent writer today if it weren’t for Scribophile. Most of the regulars are awesome, though I should warn you that, because it’s home to thousands of writers from around the world, it’s also home to thousands of personalities and political views and some of them will clash with yours.

If you are the kind of person who thinks he’s owed crits but can’t be bothered to give them, don’t join Scribophile. Be prepared to pay a lot of money for editing.

If you’d like to know more about Scribophile and how it works, I’ve written a separate article for it. Also, FYI, most writers, in my experience, tend to gush about their own particular favorite way to find crit partners (mine is obviously Scrib) but that doesn’t mean it’s the only way to find crit partners.

So I didn’t look around much, I’ll admit. Next I’m going to list off some places I’ve heard of or have had recommended to me, but caveat: I am not a member at any of them.

Wattpad is a thriving online community that is open to teenagers. I have heard good things about Wattpad; a friend of a friend posts routinely there and gets a lot of good feedback. People who use Wattpad do get published. Be warned: with 70 million readers it’s possible you won’t be able to find a user name that isn’t a string of random numbers. I wanted to create a login just to be able to describe it more, but gave up after eight attempts to create a login name.

The University of Iowa, which hosts one of the best creative writing programs in the US, hosts a writing MOOC (massive open online course) several times a year. It’s free, and it’s taught by their creative writing instructors. If you sign up for the next MOOC, you will be encouraged to form crit teams with other students. You can continue in those crit teams long after the MOOC ends.

NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) encourages its members to form support and crit teams, which you could continue on your own after November, April, and July end.

I’ve heard that some people have found crit partners via GoodReads, but I’ve been on GoodReads for about 3 seconds so I don’t know.

Alexa Donne, a trad-published YA author who has a vlog on YouTube, routinely uses Reddit. I have never used Reddit on purpose so I can’t say anything about that, but check out her videos and see if Reddit would work for you. You will notice that her advice very closely mirrors mine. That’s because it’s good advice. Most experienced writers will tell you exactly the same thing.

Likewise, Jenna Moreci, an indie-published, successful fantasy writer, has a vlog on YouTube. She has a video on finding crit partners, and several videos on how to critique.

If you use Twitter, there are specific hashtags such as #cpmatch that you can use. You can also post on Twitter that you’re looking for critique partners or crit groups. Use the tag #amwriting and someone will eventually point you in the right direction.

Another thing you can do is join a professional society or your favorite writer’s fan club. Often they have adverts for people who write and want to find crit partners. At 16 I found my very first writing team via Mercedes Lackey’s fan club. This was pre-Internet, so we did everything through the post office, but I did end up in a group of six writers. Nowadays I’m sure it’s much easier, and I’m betting most author fan clubs can help you find a crit group, especially if you’re writing in that person’s genre.

Offline resources abound. If you have a local public library, ask the info desk librarian. They usually know everything. Check the bulletin boards; usually writing groups advertise there. For example, there’s a writing group in the East Bay Area called “B Street Writers” that I found through a local library. They have over 100 writers of all genres. They meet once a month. You just go to a meeting, be friendly, and see if anyone needs a crit partner. Don’t act like they’re there to serve you. Offer your services, and if anyone sounds interested, ask for an exchange.

Bookstores are also great places to look for writer’s groups, as are places such as Panera, Starbucks, or Peet’s. Writing groups often meet at places like those, and, while they might not have an opening for you, they could point you in some interesting directions if you ask nicely and aren’t obnoxious.

Many cities have recreation departments or adult schools that offer creative writing courses. Those are great places to find more crit partners. Sign up for one.

My last suggestion is to go to Google and type [your city or area] writing critique group and see what comes up. I did that for Chicago and found a couple of matches through meetup.com and several other promising links.

Good luck! If you know of any resources that aren’t here, leave them in the comments.

How to critique

For this article you should know the basic kinds of editing already. If you don’t, please read “Kinds and costs of editing.” Also, I’ve posted links to related articles about critiquing at the bottom of this post.

I critique an average of 9000 words each week, six weeks out of seven, and I’ve been doing this for at least four years. According to Scribophile, as of today I have critiqued 353 works, and that’s a low number because I’ve also critiqued for offline friends. (If you want to know more about Scribophile, a crit partner-matching website, read this article.)

My first at least 50 critiques were entirely copy editing. I cringe when I look back on them both due to my total ignorance and my absolute and awful arrogance. I corrected I don’t know how much punctuation, spelling, etc. I threw in a little line editing, but that was mostly when someone had obviously used the wrong word. “The building was inflammable; it wouldn’t burn” kinda thing. Most writers, especially novice writers, do a considerable amount of copy editing in their critiques because they think that’s the only kind of critiquing there is. You give me your work, I’m going to polish it.

The problem with that is, you’re most likely polishing a turd.* A polished turd is still a turd. It won’t sell. If you pipe sunshine up the asses of novice writers and they publish to Amazon, you (and they) will kill their careers even before they start. DO NOT do this. It’s cruel.

So this is how and when and why you should critique.

If a writer is giving you an alpha draft (a draft that has not gone through a beta read, also known as a ‘rough draft,’ also known as the thing most writers tend to rewrite about eight times before they show it to someone else–your rough draft can have drafts of its own) then you developmentally critique it. Do not talk about word choice. Do not talk about sentence structure. Do not point out that most of the sentences start with “I” or “He” or “The.” Do not point out adverbs, dialogue tags, bad punctuation, etc.

Why not?

That is enough to make any novice writer, especially the ones still in larval stage–teens on Wattpad, people who just started seriously writing a few months ago, etc.–cry and quit. Then you have crushed someone who might go on to be a very good writer. Many writers have deep and persistent self-esteem problems and they only grow out of it with patience and practice, and if you crush a new or novice writer because you think they can’t punctuate–if you give a new writer a critique that is a literal sea of red ink–you are being absolutely awful, arrogant, and generally not a person I’d care to be around. All that craft bullshit can be learned, or you can pay to have it corrected. And you can argue that a writer should be resilient–I agree!!–but resilience must be grown. If you step on the newly-germinated tree, it will die. If you step on a full-grown oak, it will not.

But also, as I said, if the work is fundamentally flawed, the person is going to rewrite it, and all your comma corrections are trashed. For example, I’m working on a book currently titled Joana. I wrote most of Act 1, showed it to crit partners, and had my characters soundly (but kindly) panned. So I rewrote it from scratch. New scenes, new settings, everything. It was (kindly) panned again for being slow and uninteresting. I rewrote it from scratch again–new scenes, new settings. That one worked. If I’d had someone else spend an hour or two of their time nit-picking my adverbs, they’d have wasted their time entirely.

When you do a developmental crit on an alpha draft, it should be mostly in paragraph form. If you’re working on a Word or Google Docs file, you might consider making a few brief comments using the “comments” function in places you want the writer to be aware of. Then make a separate file, title it with the author’s name and yours and their chapter number and the word ‘critique’ (note: I teach teenagers so I tend to give explicit instructions), and write a few paragraphs about the characters, the pacing, and the plot. I will break this out by act later. If you are using an online platform such as Scribophile or Betabooks, there will be ways of doing this inherent to the platform.

By the way, I highly, highly recommend Scribophile and Betabooks. See “How to find crit partners” for more.

Default to developmental editing crits as much as possible unless the writer has asked for something else. Developmental crits are the deepest, most useful crits that you can receive or write. They will teach you the most, as a critiquer, and they will help you the most to receive as a writer.

If the writer has explicitly asked for line editing, you will go through their document and use the comments function to make note of what needs to be changed. Do not rewrite someone else’s work unless they ask for it! That’s rude. Sometimes I have, very politely and hesitantly, suggested to a writer that they rewrite a sentence in a particular way. I show them how I would write the sentence, and then I explain why. The explanation is crucial. When the writer gets that suggestion and explanation, they are then free to accept the rewrite or reject it, but they’re not going to think you’re an arrogant asshole who believes he’s better than they are.

So you might do something like this:

edit 2

I wrote the text and made the corrections. Note that I didn’t correct the punctuation in the third paragraph. That’s because it’s a function of copy editing, not line editing. Now in a real crit, if I were line editing, I’d throw in a little copy editing for obvious stuff like that as well, and I always highlight typos and dropped end-quotes in any crit I do, but those tend to be rare because a good writer will at least run spell check before uploading anything, and spell check catches a lot of typos. I will write an eventual article on dialog tags and shit like that, and when I do I’ll link it here.

So that’s some basic line editing, and what a critique for line editing might look like.

A critique for copy editing would look very similar, but instead of the suggestions I made for alternate words, I would focus on the bad punctuation. I’d highlight it and in the comment I’d put in the correct punctuation so that all the writer would need to do is hit “accept” or whatever the button on your comments is and it will automatically make the correction.

If a writer has a chronic problem, like, for example, they write a lot of dangling modifiers, then highlight the first one and make a comment about dangling modifiers. Explain what a dangling modifier is and how to fix it, and then just go through the rest of the text, highlighting the dangling modifiers, and in the comment write something brief.

For example:

edit 3

Do not express anger and frustration at a writer’s consistent errors, especially if you’re only reading the one thing they give you. They can’t magically fix the entire document the moment you point out the first error. Many writers write their entire WIP before they ever show it to anyone, which means the same error may be in the 80,000 words you just volunteered to read. Explain the error ONCE, mark it in a consistent and bland fashion when you see it, and keep snappy, snarky, mean comments about GPS (grammar, punctuation, spelling) to yourself. All they’ll do is hurt and demoralize the writer.

The fact of the matter is that many, many writers are terrible at GPS. But they write great books. They may be extremely good at creating compelling characters and exciting plots, which is considerably harder to do than having good GPS. Dyslexics, for example, can’t spell, and if you yell at them for their spelling, all you’re doing is being an ableist asshole.** Also, sometimes a little misuse of GPS is fine. Most writers insert the occasional fragment in their writing (like I have in this paragraph) and that is a matter of tone.

Personally, I wouldn’t do any copy editing beyond really obvious typos unless I was explicitly asked to do so, I knew the author’s nationality, I was familiar with the GPS conventions for that nation, and I knew their intended audience’s nationality. English people spell and punctuate differently than Americans. The official language of Nigeria, India, Belize, and several other surprising countries is English, and do you know if they use conventions from England, or if they (like America did) invented their own? Case in point: one of my friends and crit partners is South African. She writes romances that are set in South Africa. I have critiqued some of them. She speaks English natively, but as I have not studied her country’s punctuation conventions, I don’t crit her punctuation.

Fact of the matter is, in a real, fairly professional environment, you will almost never critique a person’s GPS unless they explicitly ask you to look at it prior to publication. Typically copy editing is done after the writer has hired and paid a professional do some editing.

So if professionals are available, and if you absolutely should hire them (and you should if you ever want to develop an audience), then why bother getting someone to critique your own work? Why critique anyone else’s?

If you learn how to do all this stuff, then you won’t have to pay as much to the various editors for their work. Some editors charge by the hour instead of by the word. If you are good at GPS and if you’ve had a friend critique your work for mechanics, then you don’t end up paying as much for a professional to catch everything you and your friend miss. Also, the more you critique other people, the less likely you are to make the same mistake. And the more people critique your work, the more errors they will catch and you can fix before sending it to that expensive editor.

Caveat: you will be incredibly bad at catching your own errors. Typically you will make all kinds of horrible, newbie mistakes that embarrass the hell out of you when you write your alpha draft. I drop end quotes all the time, or I put an end quote after a regular sentence for no apparent reason, because when I’m in the flow sometimes my brain signals get crossed and then I do this.” A crit partner can catch that for me tomorrow, but I’m going to need to wait at least a week before re-reading it if I intend to catch it myself. I’m too close to the work.

Now if your GPS is terrible you shouldn’t do line edits anyway. But don’t worry — you can still write! There are ways of fixing GPS.

There’s one other kind of criticism that you can and should give, especially during the alpha draft / developmental critique stage. You should tell the person whom you’re critiquing what they’re doing right. I’m not a fan of the praise/shit sandwich and I don’t naturally do this, so generally when I critique a work I go over it once for the critique and a second time to pick out what the person did well.

This isn’t intended to make them feel better or make the critique go down easier. I firmly believe that if you can’t handle criticism, you need to develop some resiliency. I’m not here to service anyone’s feelings, and professional writers would never ask me to.

That said, a large number of novice writers have no idea what they’re doing right. It’s important to know what you do right or well because it gives you confidence in your own writing, it’s something you should work on to develop even further, and you can then use that to help other people who aren’t as good as you at it to become better at it. If you help a novice writer see what they’re doing right, they’ll begin to develop a better eye for the strengths and weaknesses of their own works and of the works of others. They’ll be able to articulate those things easier. They’ll learn faster. And they’ll be less likely to have to steel themselves before they open your crits, no matter how much they appreciate and are grateful for your commentary.

Also, the occasional reader response stuff is good too. Note where you laughed and where the story made you feel one way or the other, even if the feeling is ‘boredom’ or ‘distaste.’ How’s the person ever going to fix their boring story if they don’t know precisely where you got bored? Writers need to know all these things in order to improve their craft. Don’t make your whole critique reader-response, but do put some in.

Read this for how to respond to crits you’ve received.

Read this for what to do with the crits or edits you’ve received.

Read this for how to find critique partners.

Read this for how to develop the right attitude (or for what not to do to other writers, etc.)


*There are a host of articles out there about ‘shitty rough drafts’ and the like.

**I know many English teachers whose spelling, punctuation, and grammar are worse than mine. I teach history. And while you can use spellcheck, if you struggle with whether you should use ‘lay’ or ‘lie,’ or whether it’s spelled ‘gray’ or ‘grey,’ or you mix up your ‘their,’ ‘they’re’ and ‘there,’ spell check isn’t going to help. As for the Oxford comma, only point that out if they’re inconsistent. If they use the Oxford comma in one sentence but don’t in the other, that’s a point worth making. If you hate the Oxford comma and they use it, let that sleeping dog lie. Your opinion is not valid either way there unless you’re using a style sheet for a particular publication.

Kinds (and costs) of editing

I had no idea there were different kinds of editing when I started writing. This is what I’ve learned.

The first kind of editing is called developmental editing. If you hire a developmental editor, that editor will evaluate your WIP (work in progress, your unfinished, pre-submission story) for fundamental things such as plot and character. They will tell you why your middle sags, or what you can do to make your mediocre, kind of boring main character vital and dynamic. They will discuss story structure with you, give you advice on where to properly start your story, discuss pacing, and all those other good things. They do a lot to keep your story from being boring.

The second kind of editing is called line editing. These editors will discuss sentence and paragraph structure with you and give you advice on word choice. They do a lot to make your prose sing.

The third kind of editing is called copy editing. These editors fix your grammar, punctuation, and spelling. They look for consistency, so they can point out if you misspelled a character’s name, if the character has brown eyes in one part of the book and hazel eyes in the other, if you have continuity errors, and all that other nit-picky stuff. People expect published books to look ‘professional,’ and they help with that.

You can and should also hire a proofreader if you intend to indie-publish. A proofreader goes through the finished, edited manuscript (MS) and looks for typos.

You need all three editors and the proofreader. If you intend to indie-publish, you will need to hire all of them. They cost a fortune, which is why there’s not much money in writing for most people. It’s not unheard-of to lose money on writing until around your fifth to eighth published book, if you go indie, or to not earn out your advance until your fifth to eighth book, if you trad-publish. Between editors, cover artists, layout specialists, and marketing, writing is generally a money-losing proposition.

But there’s good news! You can learn how to lay out your own novel. You can learn how to market yourself, which you’re going to need to do anyway because even publishers expect you to do a lot of your own marketing. Book tours and speaking engagements, for example, are authors doing their own marketing and they typically find it exhausting. Signing 2500 autographs in one day makes your hand swell up and keeps you from writing. You can even learn how to edit, and then trade edits with other writers who have learned how to edit. (This is called critiquing. See my “How to critique” article.)

How much should an editor cost? The Write Life did a pretty good article on that (circa 2017), so I’m going to defer to them. But just in case you want it quickly, they break it down this way:

For a 70,000 word book (about 250 pages):

  • Developmental editing – $5,600 USD
  • Copyediting – $1,260
  • Proofreading – $791

Again, that’s a general idea. Some places will charge less, but they usually also have less experience. You get what you pay for. Typically I save my tax returns in a special savings account toward editing costs, book covers (a good book cover can run you $800; covers are far more than art alone) and the like.

Scrivener

My favorite writing program is Scrivener. Lots of people like Google Docs or MS Word. It’s fine if you do.

I started with Word. I wrote a 120,000 word MS in Word, and that’s where I discovered that Word is terrible for novel writing.

See, I had one document. It was that long. It took several minutes to open. Scrolling through it to find anything took forever. It was unwieldy and annoying and ended up being quite large, megabytes-wise. And editing in it was absolute hell. The comments function isn’t really designed for novelists, and there was no way to get back material I’d cut out unless I pasted it into a different Word file. Soon I had random Word files everywhere and that just wasn’t working for me. I tried breaking everything into chapter files, but that meant opening a bunch of files any time I wanted to look for something that had happened earlier in the story.

Google Docs is worse. I know some people love the Cloud, but I’m not that fond of it. I don’t like not owning my software or the place where I store my creative works. Also, Dropbox corrupted some of my files and I’ve known people who have flat-out lost files they’ve stored in Drive or Dropbox or iCloud. So, no thank you. It does have revision history, which is one up on MS Word, but it’s not as robust a program.

Scrivener is basically a database program. You can create “folders” and put “files” in them. Each file can be whatever you want — a chapter, a scene, some notes, etc. They’re easy to organize. You can “paperclip” things to them and even write on the “folders” as if you were writing on the outside of a manila file folder. It’s quick to open and quick to organize the files. It’s also not big.

It comes with some other features that make it extremely useful. (I don’t even use all the features.) You can toggle “split screen” and split it right/left or top/bottom, if you need to have two files open at the same time. There are templates for characters and places and you can modify them or make your own. It compiles into a variety of different formats based on how you intend to publish it, so I can press a button and have something I can read on my Kindle, or publish to PDF, or whatever. You can set target goals and there’s some pretty sophisticated statistical analysis stuff I don’t use, but you could probably use it to figure out how many times you use the word “probably” if you needed to.

On the right hand side is the Inspector, which has several useful things. There’s a notepad for jotting stuff down or storing sentences. Whatever’s on the notepad is saved to that particular file. There’s an “index card” you can write on, and some general meta-data that you can customize so you can indicate if you’re on your alpha draft, or if this scene contains those particular characters, plus you can toggle things so that the file does or doesn’t get included in your ending compile (useful if you have a “notes” file). You can attach hyperlinks to files inside Scrivener or on the Internet. You can create keywords, comments, and footnotes.

Best, there’s a function called ‘snapshots.’ I  use this extensively. You press the button, and it saves your text file into a ‘snapshot’ which is dated and appended to the file without being included in the compile or word count. You can name each snapshot. This is a godsend for editing. Before I make any changes to my work, and especially before I erase anything, I click “snapshots.” If I make a mistake with my edits, I can roll back to the snapshotted version. I can also click on the snapshot and read it in the side bar without rolling anything back. I honestly don’t know what I would do without snapshots. It’s the single-most useful feature I’ve found in a writing program.

Another thing that’s useful is that it has several “views.” The first view is the standard word processor view — you type your text in it. But if you click the button at the top, it takes you to a literal corkboard screen with index cards that you can write on and move around. Those index cards are your file folders. It’s extremely valuable for plotting. If you don’t like index cards on a corkboard, there’s another screen that shows you your outline in list form, and you can edit or modify that.

Scrivener is about $45, goes on sale every time there’s a NaNo (3x/yr), and you can get discounts on it through subscribing to various writing sites. Also, they let you put it on more than one computer, so I have Scrivener on every PC and Mac I own. They have great customer service and a forum and there’s a really good Scrivener for Dummies book which is better and more useful than their tutorials. In addition to using Scrivener for writing, I also use it for curriculum planning and I’m compiling the recipes we use frequently into a “cookbook” (they have a template for that) so that we can eventually get rid of most of the cookbooks that we only use for one or two recipes, and free up a little space.

Last, there is a timeline program for novels and the two can link. Super nice!

Scrivener is used by countless published and unpublished writers. Their testimonials page goes on forever. If you plan on seriously writing, I encourage you to download the free trial (good for 30 disparate days) and give it a try.

Again, I don’t get compensated by anyone for anything. This is really me loving this product.

My process

I’m friends with Chris Brecheen, who does a blog about writing, and he posts re-runs sometimes. The latest one was about his process. He says that he has been told that some day he’s going to be so sick of the question he’d rather poke out his eye with a refrigerator magnet than answer it (paraphrased), but then he wrote a big long post about it with references to cherries and the like.

In the (hah!) hopes that some day I will become famous and someone will ask me, I am hereby answering that question. I guess that means I’m popping my own cherry. How masturbatory.

I dunno. I’m pretty scattered. I don’t write every day. I don’t write at the same time every day. Chris really likes this old writer named Dorothea Brande,* who was the person who suggested writing at the same time every day, so that’s probably where the advice comes from. If I were to write at the same time every day, I’d have to get up 1-2 hours earlier than I do and I hate the very thought of that with a burning passion. See, I have a gold medal in insomnia and getting to sleep is hard, so why would I want to wake up earlier than I have to? If you haven’t slept, your writing is going to be shit anyway. Also, I have ADHD (see previous post). That means it’s hard to do anything regularly unless I have to physically go somewhere to do so.** Maybe when I’m rich-and-famous I can have a shed in which I write, but I have to write first.

When I do write, I typically put on my writing playlist first. It’s full of hard rock, industrial, dubstep, and 80s music like Madonna. I pick it for the beat and the general tenor of the music. I’ve listened to all those songs so many times I no longer need to ‘hear’ them so I just let them subliminally wash through me and add to the tone of my books.

Why, no, I don’t write middle grade. Why do you ask?

I have three monitors. The big one sits in the middle and I have two equal-sized ones that I have mounted to each side. On the left side is my collection of a million-and-one tabs, including my Google Play tab. On the right side is my social media screen, which I almost always have open to Slack because that’s where my writer buddies hang out. I turn Facebook off because Facebook is the time killer.

I have the middle screen completely filled in with Scrivener, the software I use for my novel. Scrivener is like the industry standard for novelists. It looks a little overwhelming at first, but it’s awesome and I’ll probably do a whole entry just on it. My Scrivener always has the left side open to the binder and the right side open to the inspector.

I usually read a bit of what I wrote the previous time, to get a feel for what I was doing, and then I start writing. Because I have ADHD and can hyperfocus, I tend to lose track of time. I think I write about 500-600 words per hour, but I’m not sure. There are times I giggle incessantly and other times where I stop, mid-sentence, and stare off into space. Sometimes I write a scene and hate it, at which point I might stop, split my screen, and rewrite it, but mostly I just keep going and make notes in the note pad portion of Scrivener that say “fix this.”

I’m in a critique group that requires I produce 3000-3500 words of new material each week, six weeks out of seven, so there are times when I finish the last word and immediately send it off to my crit group. Other times, I just let it sit. I’ve got a nice “cushion” of a few weeks’ worth of submissions so I’m not feeling pressured to write right now. (It’s a benign pressure, mostly created by myself.)

Then, typically, I go to bed. Sometimes I’ll stay awake, staring at the ceiling, thinking about what I could do with my story, but I’ve found it’s actually much more productive to think through story issues in the car than it is in bed, probably because my body is occupied driving the car, but my body isn’t really doing anything in bed but laying there. That could be an ADHD-related thing.

*I get no kickbacks from anything I link to.
** Kaiser (my HMO) keeps trying to treat my various joint problems by giving me sheets of paper with exercises on them and telling me “do these exercises 2-3 times a day.” I can’t do that. I can’t even remember to do that. Which is why my joints suck. If I had to go somewhere, I could do it. I got a lot more exercise when I had a personal trainer to try not to let down.